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WASHINGTON — A pair of St. Patrick’s Day rallies will bring thousands of protesters on opposite sides of the political spectrum to within a few hundred feet of each other on the National Mall.

The first, organized by Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, will include a parade from the Mall to the Pentagon to rally against operations in Iraq and the rising defense budget, according to ANSWER spokesman Bill Hackwell.

The second, dubbed the Gathering of Eagles, is designed to “show the troops our support and tell them not to believe the hype that everyone is against them,” according to group spokesman Kristinn Taylor.

Both men expect big crowds for the all-day events: Taylor said his group’s permit application estimates up to 20,000 attending, while ANSWER is helping arrange more than 200 bus caravans nationwide.

For now, the anti-war rally is scheduled to begin early Saturday to the west of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, while the Gathering will take place mainly to the east.

Taylor said his group does not have plans for direct confrontation of the other protesters and will not follow their March across the river to the Pentagon.

City officials and National Park police still are finalizing plans for how to handle both groups.

The Gathering group has accused the anti-war protesters of planning to vandalize the Wall, and promised to defend the monument.

ANSWER members insist the counter rally is designed to intimidate opposition views and possibly provoke protesters.

Park police do not allow protesters of any sort within a few hundred feet of the Vietnam memorial, or any others.

“No demonstrators are allowed to march in restricted areas, regardless their issue,” said Bill Line, spokesman for the National Park Service.

Both sides are scheduling high-profile speakers, including gold-star families. ANSWER’s rally will feature the Rev. Al Sharpton, Ralph Nader and Cindy Sheehan, among others. Members of the veterans group Rolling Thunder and conservative columnist Michelle Malkin are expected at the counterevent.

A caravan of military supporters driving through 12 states collecting flags for the Gathering of Eagles. Members of Veterans for Peace, Military Families Speak Out and other active anti-war groups are directing their members to the ANSWER rally.

Hackwell said he hopes troops overseas see that his group has their best interests at heart, and wants to bring them home safely immediately.

But Taylor said troops need to hear that the American public still wants them to succeed in Iraq and thanks them for their sacrifice.

For more information about the anti-war rally, visit: http://answer.pephost.org. For more information on the counter rally, visit: www.gatheringofeagles.org.

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